Passive Language Learning is Bulls**t. Here’s Why.

Published on
June 4, 2020
Updated on
April 24, 2023
min read
This article may contain affiliate links
Written by
Ramsay Lewis

Think you can just acquire a language by watching Netflix? Think again. Here’s why active listening, and not passive listening, is the key to getting fluent.

Passive Language Learning is Bulls**t. Here’s Why.
Table of contents

I know that this is a bit provocative, but I’m going to say it: passive language learning is bulls**t

I’m a language teacher. It’s my job to help people develop a language learning programme that works for them. As part of that, I encourage my clients to think about the kinds of activities that they can add to their day to get more exposure to English.

It’s very common that people think that they can learn just by ‘absorbing’ English passively. While passive learning is better than nothing, it takes ages. 

Language apps are especially bad for this. They make you think that you can learn English by just spending 5 minutes a day playing around with them. 

But the truth is that you will not learn English fluently by playing with an app for five minutes a day.

Language learning takes dedication, and time no matter how you do it. But the more you focus and engage in active learning, the quicker you’ll become fluent. 

In this article, I want to put to rest some of the questions I’m frequently asked about passive learning and why it doesn’t work as well as active learning

What Is Passive Learning?

Passive learning is the learning that occurs when someone else brings information to you and you simply absorb it. You sit back and let the information flow over you. Passive learning is like being the patron in a restaurant: someone else finds the ingredients, cooks the meal, and serves it to you. 

Examples of passive learning include:

  • Watching TV, Netflix, or YouTube
  • Listening to a podcast in the background while you go for a run
  • Joining an English group on WhatsApp
  • Simply living in an English-speaking country without making an effort to interact

What Is Active Learning?

Active learning is, well, more active. You are a participant in the learning. You are in control of it. You process the information, consider it, think about what it means. You kind of mentally chew on it. 

Active learning is like being a home cook: you’ve chosen a recipe, gone out to the supermarket to buy the ingredients, chopped them all up, and cooked them into a meal. 

Examples of active learning include:

Is Passive Learning Effective?

In short, not really. At least, it’s not as effective as active learning.

The reason is that learning is not a passive activity. As some researchers have stated, 

“Students cannot learn just by attending the classes, listening to teachers, memorising ready-made assignments, and producing answers. They must talk about what they are learning (output), write about it (integration), connect it to past knowledge, and use it in their daily lives. They must make what they learn part of their lives by practice.”

The problem with passive learning is that you don’t engage with the information you receive. And that means you don’t learn it as well. 

If you are trying to do everything 'passively', you aren't really engaging your brain. You may learn, but much slower than if you focus and learn actively. 

Does listening to a language help you learn it?

Absolutely. The entire raison d'être of Leonardo English and the English Learning for Curious Minds podcast is to help you learn a language by listening to it. 

And, as research has shown, listening to podcasts improves your English listening and English speaking skills

But we also know that listening passively to a podcast is not the most effective way to learn English. 

Instead, you will learn the most if you focus on what you’re listening to and actively engage in it. That’s why we also offer transcripts and key vocabulary. Using these allows you to actively engage with podcasts and more effectively learn English. 

Here are some active learning strategies that you can use with podcasts:

  • Write down new words and expressions whenever you come across new words
  • Make flashcards of the key vocabulary and practise them. 
  • Transcribe the podcast as you listen to it and then compare your transcript to ours.
  • Read the transcript aloud or shadow it.
  • Write a summary of the podcast after listening to it.

Each of these is an active learning strategy that will help you learn English much more effectively than simply listening to it.

Is it possible to learn another language in your sleep?

Maybe, but probably not. 

Last year, a study in Current Biology was published that showed people may be able to learn word pairs in their sleep. The researchers played an audio recording that combined pairs of words in different languages to participants as they slept. The researchers found that participants could guess the word pairs they heard during slow-wave sleep at 10% above chance levels. They concluded that some word pairs had been learned during sleep. 

The news went wild with claims like, “Your brain can pick up a new language during certain phases of sleep”. But actually, the researchers only concluded that vocabulary was only encoded during certain phases of sleep, and I’m not sure that guessing words at 10% above chance levels is that great. 

Not only that, but it didn’t last long. The researchers noted that “sleep-encoded vocabulary was retained for about 1 h.” 

Remembering associations between words for an hour doesn’t count as “learning” a language in my book.

It is true that sleep is involved in our learning. Sleep actually plays a really important role in consolidating our learning. Without sleep, we would not remember much.

But is listening to word pairs while we sleep an effective new way to learn a language? 

Probably not. 

Instead, just focus on learning English actively while you’re awake. Do the regular activities that you would normally do in an English learning programme. And while you’re doing the activities, focus on them, don’t try to multitask. That’s the best way to learn a language. 

Can you actually become fluent with Duolingo?

No, you cannot become fluent using only Duolingo or other language apps. That’s a common myth about learning English.

Don’t get me wrong, I love Duolingo. I have used it a lot, and I encourage my students with very low levels to use it. It’s great for learning the basics of a language.

But you can’t become fluent using it. At best, it can help you get to an A2 or B1 level. 

Why? Because you really need to use English to learn it. You need to get out there and talk to people, read, or listen. You acquire a language when you use a language in context; when you consume content in it. 

Duolingo is not a good way to use a language in context. The grammar exercises that apps offer can help with the basics, but they’ll never get you to fluent.

Should I ever passively learn a language?

I’ve been pretty hard on passive language learning so far. But are there any benefits? Should you ever do it?

Of course. 

I am learning Portuguese and I am constantly listening to podcasts while I’m at the gym or while I’m making dinner. The ability to listen to podcasts while I’m doing other things is one of my favourite things about them. There is absolutely a place for passive, lower stress, lower focus activities. We can’t run at 100% all of the time. 

But when I am listening as a background activity, I realise that I’m not engaging in the most effective learning. It’s better than nothing, but it’s not the most effective way to learn. So I also make time every day to actively learn the language. 

You should feel free to learn passively. Maybe you listen to a podcast on your drive to work or while you’re getting ready in the morning. Just know that the more that you focus on what you’re listening to—the more you engage with it and process it—the better you will learn. 

Ideally, you will complement your active learning activities with passive ones when you want to do something a bit easier. Put on a film or listen to a podcast when you’re out walking or at the gym. 

Just be aware that you should have a mix. Think of it like an exercise routine. You need to have some high intensity days to make progress, but you also need some low intensity days to rest. It’s the same with English. If you’re doing 100% active activities, you’ll become exhausted. But if you’re doing 100% passive activities, it will take you ages to get fluent.

Design your English programme so that you work at it actively some of the time, and passively some of the time. 

Maybe one day you sit down with a podcast, read the transcript, and put the key vocabulary in your favourite flashcard app. On other days, maybe you just listen while you wash the dishes. The first is high-intensity, but also high-value; the second is low-intensity, but still useful.

Conclusion: How to Learn English Actively

Learning a language is not easy. Passively watching Netflix feels easy and comfortable, but you’re not going to learn English effectively by only doing that.

To learn effectively, you’re going to need to engage in active learning. That means focusing on the language, processing it, and using it. It will be difficult and it will feel tiring, but that’s how learning happens. Your brain is a muscle—to have it grow effectively, you have to flex it.

That doesn’t mean you should never learn passively. Listening to a podcast while you do the dishes is great, and there certainly is a time and a place for it. It’s just not as effective as focusing on listening to a podcast and then summarising it afterwards and defining the key vocabulary.

To get the most out of your learning, make sure that you engage in active learning strategies for at least some of your English learning activities. That’s the best way to become fluent.

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